Should You Discount Your Rates Or Offer Free Sessions?

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The fitness industry gets the shaft sometimes. It endures godawful long hours, we work when others don’t, there’s rarely (if ever) paid vacation, and there’s almost zero barrier to entry which allows a bunch of numbskulls to mess things up for everyone else.1

 

I can’t think of any other industry or profession where, more times than not, the expectation is potential patrons get to “sample” the service before they decide to purchase. Okay, admittedly, that 100% describes the process of purchasing a car. However that scenario is a little different. A car is merchandise. The fitness industry is a service industry.

I think it’s a fair question, and feel free to insert any other profession in place of dentist (it’s the first thing that came to my mind when I wrote the Tweet): lawyer, hair-stylist, plumber, tutor, financial advisor, professional Han Solo impersonator, anything.

I also think there’s no one correct answer and that whatever side of the fence you’re on – “yes, you should offer free consultations and services” or “hells-to-the-no you shouldn’t” – has it’s advantages and disadvantages. In fact, if there’s any question that deserves the canned “I don’t know” response it’s this one.

via GIPHY

However, upon further reflection I think the more germane response is…

“It Depends”

I remember when I was working at Sports Club LA (now Equinox) here in Boston back in 2006-2007 every new member received two “free” sessions with a trainer. I say “free” because the sessions were complimentary to the members but I was still compensated for my time. Not every chain does that of course, but you can bet they all have people on staff who’s sole job it is to sell, sell, sell and/or direct people towards the trainers. In Boston, like any major city, there are several notable, big chain commercial gyms vying for people’s attention (and wallets):

  • Equinox
  • Boston Sports Club
  • HealthWorks
  • LifeTime Fitness
  • 24 Hour Fitness
  • Golds
  • Planet Fitness
  • Beacon Hill Athletic Club

In addition there’s dozens of mid-level commercial gyms (not chains, but pretty big) peppered throughout the city, not mention a CrossFit box in every major neighborhood. That’s a lot of competition and it makes sense that many of them would offer a free consultation or discounted introductory rates on training to entice more people to join.

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

Cressey Sports Performance business director, Pete Dupuis, discussed this very topic in THIS blog post, and one stat he brought up was that roughly 30% of people who are offered free consultations actually end up taking advantage of them. As Pete mentions:

“This may be a solid conversation rate from the perspective of the commercial gym owner, but not for the independent contractor who doesn’t see a single penny of the monthly membership dues these potential leads are paying.  A 30% conversion rate tells me that 7 out of 10 people decided that something for nothing was actually worth nothing.”

And that’s the thing: I don’t have the luxury of hundreds (if not thousands) of people paying a membership fee just to walk through the doors. Why would I offer my expertise and time for free when I have bills to pay?

Some people may counter with “well, if you offer free stuff it’s less intimidating and allows people to see whether or not you’re a good fit.”

There are a few points I’d like to offer here:

1. Again, try walking into a hair salon and asking someone for 30-60 minutes of their time in order to sample the goods and to see if “you’re a good fit.”

HAHAHAHAHAHA – no, seriously, do it.

2. This is my livelihood, not a garage sale.

3. Plus (and not that I would ever play this card), I’m Tony motherf****** Gentilcore. People, like, me. I’m cool as shit to hang out with. Deadlifts, EDM, and random 90’s Mariah Carey trivia? Who wouldn’t pay for that…;o)

4. When does it stop? You offer a friend a discount and then what? Discounts for life? The mailman trains for free?

Worse you offer one person a discount or free sessions and another client catches wind who didn’t receive the same discount and now things are going to get weird. It’s best to just draw the line in the sand and take pride in your rates.

5. As my boy Dean Somerset has noted: free stuff isn’t the same thing as free training. I have over 1,900 blog posts on this site that are free and will help point people in the right direction in terms of training advice. Please, peruse away. That takes zero of my time.

However, time = money. If you want that it’s only fair to be compensated for it.

6. With regards to free consultations specifically, here’s the deal: that’s my assessment. I’m not taking 60 minutes just to show someone how to put the pins into the machines or to gossip about who’s banging who on WestWorld.

I’m taking that time to dive deep into someone’s unique injury history, discuss goals, using screens to assess movement quality, and taking the opportunity to see how much (if anything) I need to clean up with regards to exercise technique. All of that is information I use to write an individualized program. There’s value in that, not to mention a college degree, a CSCS certification I need to work at to maintain, and years of continuing education. If there’s any time left over, cool, lets discuss robots banging each other. I’m down.

Other Miscellaneous Things I Want to Say, But Have No Idea How to Put Them In Coherent Order.

  • I’d be remiss not to say this: Have a filter. Experience matters in this context. If you are in fact a new coach/trainer there is going to be a degree of doing stuff you’d rather not do. The entitlement that permeates with new trainers entering this industry is dumbfounding. There will be times you may have to offer your time for free or offer discounts in order to get more eyes in front of you. It’s not beneath you to do so. Moreover, you may end up working for a year (or longer) earning “beginner” wages. It’s part of the gig. Suck it up.
  • What about online stuff and emails? I take a lot of pride in that I try to answer every email sent my way. I think there’s huge value with interacting with your audience and not being an uppity dick. I’m not that much of an a-hole that I can’t take a few minutes to answer someone’s question. Where it becomes absurd is when one question turns into 17, or someone sends an email that would rival War and Peace in length. I ain’t got time for that.

  • I feel strongly there needs to be some form of “buy in” for the person to take things seriously in the first place. If the session(s) are free and there’s no penalty (loss of $$) on their end to 1) show up and/or 2) be accountable there’s less likelihood they’re going to be invested in the process.
  • This is NOT to say I don’t feel there’s value in offering discounted training/rates sometimes. The peeps over at Mark Fisher Fitness are huge proponents of offering special one-time only offers of 20-25% off packages when people attend a special bootcamp or class. I like this idea! If you’re already making the time to be at a certain place at a certain time, go for it. Offer free shit. Make it a special charity bootcamp or, I don’t know, just because it’s Thursday. MFF’s rule is run the class, get people’s names, offer the offer, stalk them for 30 days with emails and phone calls, but after that stop.
  • Understandably, there are some commercial gym trainers who are stuck between a rock and hard-place who receive minimal help from management in terms of client referrals. In this scenario I sense some value in offering free classes or sessions. If it’s a matter of getting more eyes in front of you I’d suggest offering 15-30 minute workshops or hands-on sessions during your floor hours where you go over core training, fat-loss strategies, or maybe offer exercise technique tutorials. Here people can get a flavor for how you roll and decide if you’re a good match or not. You totally are by the way.

Have some of your own advice to offer? Please chime in below or on the Facebook feed. I know many people have different perspectives and ideas on this topic and I have no doubts others can and will benefit from your experiences.

UPDATE

I should address a common theme I see popping up from people who oppose my view point. And that is: “I want my plumber to come and fix the toilet and that’s it. There’s more to the conversation when you factor in client-trainer relationships and the importance of rapport.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why I refrain from pressuring people into purchasing large blocks of training up front. You want to talk intimidating? That’s intimidating.

“Hi, we just met and I spent 30 minutes gently tapping your glutes, want to hang out more? That’ll be $1200 for 30 sessions mmmmkay?”

Stealing another train of thought from Pete Dupuis, I’d rather earn my client’s business month to month. I only offer monthly plans. That’s a more palatable pill to swallow for most people. And, on the off-chance someone doesn’t like my glowing personality (and sweet He-Man references) or feels we’re not a long-term match, I am totally cool refunding their unused sessions. That’s just Business 101. And not sucking as a human being.

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  1. We get to wear sweatpants to work everyday, though. So everything evens out in the end.